The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Six
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
Part Six: Spring of Senior Year and the Scandal of 2006
It wasn’t far into the spring semester before the whole situation went nuclear.
The college rescinded Dr. Root’s contract for the upcoming school year. The contracts had already been issued—it was not simply that they decided not to renew. They issued him a contract, and then rescinded it. Farris claims this was in response to something Dr. Root said in class that upset a parent. What is more likely is that the parent’s complaint was the excuse Farris had been looking for to rid himself of this troublesome professor, this man who mocked his Dean of Student Life and who had no compunction about publicly, in class and in writing, disagreeing with his idiosyncratic, sola scriptura pedagogical views.
This action by the college confused and grieved many students. The grief and confusion turned into a movement, the SaveRoot! Movement, complete with a protest website, orange lapel ribbons, and flyer distributions. Root’s de facto firing succeeded in radicalizing a few students, kids who wouldn’t even sign the letter the semester before but were now going around campus wearing orange. We weren’t optimistic, but we were earnest. We all knew, or suspected, that Root would not go alone. We loved our professors and wanted them to stay. So we wore orange, built websites, handed out flyers, and did our best to make it extremely clear to the administration that we would support a change of course while there was still time.
Wednesday, March 15. The Ides of March. A group of us, students and alumni, were watching The National play at the Black Cat in DC, despondent, trying to absorb the news that five professors had resigned in protest over Dr. Root’s treatment by the administration. We’d known it was coming, but that didn’t make it easier. Our fight was over, and we had lost. The band’s melancholy tunes seemed like a perfect reflection of our grief and anger.
I think this place is full of spies
I think they’re on to me
Didn’t anybody, didn’t anybody tell you
Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?
This time, the magic wasn’t working. There was no gracefully disappearing, no absorption into the anonymous crowd this night. I love The National, but I’ve never enjoyed a show less. I felt alone and homeless. Everything we had worked so hard for had just gone up in smoke, and I still had two months of school left to endure. I didn’t belong there anymore, but I didn’t belong here either. I was stuck between worlds. I didn’t want to leave the club and go back to school, but the realization loomed that the people rubbing shoulders with me would never understand my story.
I would spend the rest of my life with Patrick Henry College on my resume, my Facebook, my Google search history.
To everyone outside the school, I would be identified with PHC and what it had become. To everyone inside, I was already identified with the enemy without, with “the world.” Was there even a place in the world for us
The alumni were drinking heavily. I was just trying not to cry.
You were right about the end.
It didn’t make a difference.
Everything I can remember,
I remember wrong.
The administration did not respond well to the mass resignation. Farris was clearly outraged and caught off guard. He quickly instructed the professors not to discuss the matter with students or the press. Farris, however, did not hesitate to discuss his opinions of the debacle with anyone who would listen. In typical fashion, he said some rather inflammatory and unflattering things about the professors, especially implying that they were less than genuinely Christian and didn’t believe in the Statement of Faith, which all members of the campus community had to sign.
Not unreasonably, the professors decided to defend themselves against these insinuations.
Friday, March 31, 2006 is one of those “I’ll always remember where I was” days. During one of his afternoon classes, Dr. Robert Stacey read a printout of the Statement of Faith to his class. Dr. Stacey was a founding faculty member, the chairman of the Government Department, the creator of the college’s flagship Freedom’s Foundations courses, my thesis advisor, and my dear friend. He read the Statement of Faith to his class and proclaimed his enthusiastic agreement with it. He reminded the students that it was his job to teach them according to this statement, and that if any of them thought he had failed in to do this, they would be better off getting up and leaving his class, and that he would not hold it against them.
After a few minutes, one daft sophomore girl did get up and leave (I say “daft” because, when asked later why she did this, she never could give a clear explanation). A couple of Farris’ toadies found her wondering the hallway, dazed and confused. When they got the story out of her, they immediately ran upstairs and told Farris.
What really happened next depends on who you ask. I didn’t have classes on Fridays; I was at my apartment during this whole event. At some point in the aftermath, I started getting desperate messages from students on campus that Dr. Stacey was being fired. I put on something dress-code compliant and drove over to campus. I found a pod of anxious, tearful underclassmen gathered outside the front doors of the main building. No one could tell me much other than that Dr. Stacey had said something during class, and now he was up in Farris’ office. I stuck my head in the building. It was mostly empty, as it usually was on Friday afternoons. No professors were in their offices. The two toadies were gliding around, looking smug and triumphant, but they would not deign to talk to me. The daft girl was sitting in the dining hall, crying.
I left; I needed to get back to my computer communicate with alumni and other off-campus students. At some point that evening, witnesses later told me, Farris came down to the dining hall and gave a red-faced rant in which he accused Dr. Stacey of “unprofessional conduct” and “forcing the students to choose sides.” Farris had given him the weekend to apologize or be fired. In reality, Dr. Stacey’s phone and email had been cut off by the time he got back to his office that afternoon. There was never actually any choice. A few of us students helped him pack up his office the next day.
Once again, this action by the administration only helped radicalize a few more students.
Dr. Stacey was beloved by the student body in a way Farris could never hope to be. It was abundantly clear to most observers that Dr. Stacey’s real crime had been embarrassing Mike Farris and little else; certainly, Farris’ behavior on that day could hardly be described as “professional” in any meaningful sense.
It is hard to overemphasize the severity of the emotional toll the professors’ resignations and, especially, Dr. Stacey’s firing inflicted on the students. The mood was funereal. We tried to keep up a sort of rueful sense of humor about the whole thing—at one point, we held a “wake” party commemorating the “death” of PHC as we knew it—but underlying the cynicism was a deep and sincere sorrow. This was not how we wanted things to turn out! We were not trying to ruin the school, we had been trying to save it! There were a lot of tears in the weeks following. I broke down anytime I had a chance to breathe and think—in the car, in the shower, at church.
The rest of the semester went by in a fury. Despite the fact that the real battle was over, there was plenty of fallout to manage, and keeping busy helped stave off the depression. The scandal hit the news and suddenly reporters everywhere wanted to talk to us, bloggers wanted to write about us, and alumni wanted to know what was happening as it happened. Managing the reporters was especially sticky. The college had always been happy to show off to reporters, but now they were having trouble controlling the message. The departing professors had been threatened not to speak out, but they refused to comply once Farris started maligning them in the press. The students didn’t have to be told not to speak without permission—the level of fear at this point was intense enough to keep most people in line. By the end of the semester, though, I felt like I didn’t have much left to lose. I chatted with my alumnus boyfriend about it a couple weeks before graduation:
boyfriend: Are you sure you want to talk to this reporter while you are in school?
me: if the professors are willing to talk, I am willing to talk
boyfriend: Don’t you fear reprisal before graduation?
me: yeah, a little
I mostly don’t care anymore
there’s really not much left they can do to me, or take from me
they can’t stop me from graduating because I talked to a reporter
In reality, they probably could have, but I called their bluff and they didn’t.
In the midst of all this, the Student Life drama continued apace. One day Dean Wilson stumped for the establishment candidate for Student Body President in chapel. The Student Senate (I was also a Senator) debated revising the election rules to prohibit this sort of interference in the future. Another day, they rescinded the rule allowing people to live off campus for the following school year, unless they already had leases. We scrambled to help friends get leases signed that day. It became a full-time job. “Every few hours or so there is more bad news,” I wrote in an email to a friend.
Meanwhile, I was also desperately trying to finish my last bit of coursework so I could walk across the stage and never look back.
I had a job to go to and post-graduation plans to line up. The pressure became unbearable at times. There was just no outlet for it. I began to entertain the thought, on my way to church or the grocery store, that I could just keep driving and never come back. Some days I would get as far as the Shenandoah River before collecting myself enough to go back home. I wasn’t the only one.
Email to a friend, May 10, 2006
[Name redacted] snapped the other day and just ran away. Literally, just threw her stuff on the ground and ran the fuck away. They found her, she didn’t go too far and it was in the middle of the day and people saw her, but it is frightening because we all have that impulse from time to time, but are rational enough to stop ourselves. I wish I could run away though.
Towards the very end of the semester, I packed a cooler full of snacks and a bag full of books, drove out of town a ways, and rented a room at a cheap motel, with no internet access. I gave my boyfriend the room’s telephone number, but no one else knew where I was. I prayed no one would recognize my car from the road. I spent four days in that room, writing my thesis and trying to sleep. (I wasn’t sleeping much anymore; even when I got the chance, I was plagued with nightmares and woke up terrified and exhausted.) This was the closest I came to running away.
I returned to find the senior class up in arms. I had been elected one of two senior class representatives, so this was my problem, too. Some graduating seniors had invited Dr. Stacey to come watch them graduate, but he told them he’d been banned from campus.
The seniors wanted the administration to make an exception, for a few hours, so he could attend graduation. The other senior class representative and I were supposed to have a conference call with Farris about it. The other representative set it up, but we were both on the phone when Farris’ assistant answered it. She asked us to wait, then came back with the news that Farris would only speak to the other representative, not to me. My friend told her that this was not a personal request, but a request on behalf of the whole senior class. Therefore, both of the senior class representatives should be present on the call. The assistant asked us to wait again, then returned with the news that Farris was out of town. We would have to reschedule.
Ten minutes after this phone call, witnesses on campus saw Farris leave the main building, get in his SUV, and drive away. He wasn’t out of town; he just didn’t want to talk to me on the phone, so he lied about it.
The seniors wrote a letter to Farris with our request. It was signed by most of the graduating class. Not surprisingly, our request was denied. The administration wanted to avoid “incidents” and, apparently, a majority of seniors was insufficient. Since we seniors didn’t have unanimity on the issue, the college said approving our request wouldn’t be fair to those few who chose not to sign the letter.
Like Stacey’s firing, this bungled response only radicalized a few more people.
The seniors were also forced to cancel the annual Professor Appreciation dinner. The faculty and the student body were so firmly split between those loyal to the departing professors and those loyal to Farris and the administration, it would have been impossible to get everyone in the same room together and have any semblance of a good time. The mutual distaste was too strong.
The week before graduation was as close to rock-bottom as I’ve ever been. I wrote to an alumnus friend three days before graduation:
Today has just been hell. Every day there is more. Will we be living with the pain of all this for forever
They’ve told us we are not allowed to have any senior pranks. Which I guess is just as well, I have work to do and couldn’t really afford the time. But I say, no senior pranks – no senior gifts. Screw them for taking the last bit of joy out of our miserable lives here.
The profs are drafting a response to Farris’ [most recent] accusation. I am worried they will all boycott graduation… and I don’t think I can go through with it if they are not there… I am so weary of this.
From a chat with another alumnus friend, in response to some event—probably the publication of a media piece making the college look bad:
this is good – it proves all those bastards wrong who say we’re just a bunch of selfish whiners out for revenge
they do not even realize
revenge would not feel good right now
it is not even remotely what I want
what I want is everything they have taken from me
what I want is a college experience as it should have been
what I want is better health and not a life of pain
because we are “winning” now, and if this is all we wanted, we should be happy
but I’ve never been more depressed in my life
I don’t want this to come across as if the only things we were upset about were missing out on “senior pranks” and the typical “college experience.” You have to remember that the reason we were all at this college to begin with was so much more than this. If all we wanted was to party and have fun, we would have gone to a different school!
We believed in the mission and vision of the school as it had been sold to us, not as it turned out in reality.
We had spent four or more years fighting tooth and nail to preserve and fulfill that mission. We believed in high-quality, Christian liberal arts education. We wanted to be leaders and world-changers. We were proud of the education we had received, and we loved the professors who had given it to us. We fought against the fundamentalists not because we hated their “rules,” but because their way of life was cannibalizing what was actually good about PHC. We had invested ourselves, our names, our reputations, our youth, our money in this fledgling project because we believed in it! Now our investment was being flushed away before our eyes, and the people destroying it were blaming the destruction on us. Is it any wonder we were left grieving and angry?
Graduation was the worst day of my entire life.
The departing professors did boycott. My extended family came to town for it, mostly oblivious to what was happening. I was miserable, and trying to put on a happy face for them just took more physical and emotional strength than I had left. Graduation morning, I forced myself to go through the motions and got myself to campus on time with a graduation gown on.
The lawn where the ceremony was being held was surrounded by people in uniform. Every campus security guard not graduating was on duty and lined up in a circle around the folding chairs and stage. Several Purcellville police cars lined the entrance to the campus.
This had never happened at a graduation before.
It occurred to me that they might really be scared of us! Rumors of “protests” and “incidents” had been circulating on campus, but “we” had not started them—we assumed “they” were fomenting the rumors to discredit “us.” The show of force was completely absurd; of course, no one had anything planned. Or at least, nothing requiring police and security. A growing, and by now significant, group of graduates didn’t feel like we could bring ourselves to shake hands with Farris. We had mused on what would happen if we chose not to do so. Alphabetically, I was the first of this group and the informal understanding was that if I didn’t shake his hand, the rest wouldn’t either. I went into the ceremony resigned to do it anyway. It was a motion I could go through like all the others. Just get it over with.
Then Farris threw a bomb. He was scheduled to speak last, after the diplomas had been conferred. But just before the diplomas, he hastily got up and started to speak. It was an intentionally inflammatory speech—a final dig at the professors, a parting shot, getting the last word in.
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I was shaking with rage and I couldn’t breath. What was the point of this? They weren’t even here—and I was glad they weren’t! I looked over my shoulder at some of my compatriots. They gaped back, wide-eyed in disbelief. Even some of those not “on our side” were sighing and looking grim. It was an embarrassingly petty act. He’s doing this because he has a captive audience, I thought. He went early because he knows we can’t leave if we haven’t gotten our diplomas yet! One last, final confirmation that it wasn’t about us students at all—it never was—it was only about him, his beliefs, his vision, his agenda, his petty scorekeeping.
In the back of the audience, the local Presbyterian pastor got up and walked out.
Farris finished, and the graduates stood to line up for our diplomas. I was shaking and dizzy. Do I shake his hand? Now, after this? I could barely walk in a straight line. At some point before I reached the stage, through my anger, I reasoned with myself that I had to be the bigger person. I could not react to petty with petty. I could not put that burden on the shoulders of those who walked behind me, even though I know they would have carried it.
Or maybe I’m just a coward. But I shook his hand.
Behind me, unprompted by anything but Farris’ behavior and his own conscience, a friendly, non-rebellious student with an unimpeachable reputation shook Farris’ hand too, looked him in the eye, and said —
“Thanks for ruining what should have been the best day of my life.”
In retrospect, I think this was the most fitting response.
I left as quickly as I could, dragging my gown behind me. My boyfriend pointed out that it was dragging the ground and I said I didn’t care —
I wished I could run over it with my car.